Seth Kantner: Swallowed by the Great Land

Around AlaskaDecember 8, 2012 

Recently my friend Don Rearden sent me a news story of a search in the Brooks Range for a missing "survivalist." His only comment: "White boy lost by Ambler."

I was teaching a class and busy. I glanced at it only because Don sent it. We both grew up in and out of villages -- separately -- and have navigated miles and years acutely aware that locals get a big kick out of a white guy screwing up in the country. So I guess making fun of ourselves is all part of traveling prepared.

Reading the article, the word "survivalist" made me picture cult members cramming underground bunkers full of canned Spam and ammo. The story said the man was from Wisconsin, an instructor from some Talking Drum Outdoor school.

Instantly, I knew Alaskans were going to come down hard on this guy. People would recall Timothy Treadwell eaten by bears, and "Into the Wild" skinny boy (Christopher McCandless) starving in his bus. Many of us are lifelong Alaskans, and plenty are from lower states, too, the majority spending days in heated buildings and most time in the country riding machines. But we seem to reserve a special place in our hearts for despising Outsiders who walk into the wild and find trouble.

Maybe we feel Outsiders haven't paid their dues, or done tedious time gathering experience. Or do we think it's a lack of respect for our hard-earned unquantifiable knowledge?

Regardless, reading along, I felt a twinge of that contempt. Immediately, I didn't feel too kind, and stopped those feelings. I've certainly enjoyed my thousand risks out on the land and ice and had my hundred lucky breaks.

I thought of my dad. When I was a kid he'd welcome any newcomer as having exactly as much right to be there as he did. He never had an ounce of that I-got-here-first attitude. He learned from sourdoughs and Natives alike. He would tell any stranger his favorite spot to pick cranberries, graciously help them out when they foolishly shot a moose in the river, or had poor footwear, or no snowshoes, or really no clue about the terrain they were headed into.

Reading, it dawned on me: I'd met this missing man, Thomas Seibold. In Ambler, this past September. He was heading upriver with our friend Gitte Stryhn and her son. He seemed like a nice guy, had big hands, and I wondered how he'd been received in the village with that ponytail Later, I had asked Mary Williams in Ambler about him. Her face brightened. "Yeah! Real nice guy, Gitte's friend."

Don Rearden sent a second story. I skimmed it. The reporter seemed to be gluing together misinformation. The search area was out of reach to all of us without airplanes and I wasn't interested in speculation. I had plenty of that in my own mind. I did recall that Kobuk acquaintances had mentioned the flooding river had frozen high and the shelf ice was dangerous. I felt bad for the guy -- this was a tough year to try to learn ice -- and I figured he was under it.

Another friend, Nick Jans, called from Juneau. Statewide commentary was harsh, he reported. We compared stories of inexperienced white guys who had dropped into the region over the decades and somehow survived. We agreed that walking up the Ambler River valley during freezeup, on a flood year, armed or unarmed, with matches or without, with the right footwear or without -- this fella had to be tough.

From calls to Ambler, I got the feeling that people there were sympathetic. It's one thing to harvest enjoyment when an Outsider messes up, but nobody wants another drowning, another person frozen to death. Too many people here have had friends and relatives go that way. We wanted him found.

I tried to forget about it and headed out on snowgo, looking for caribou. There was little snow, long stretches of clear ice. My hands kept getting cold. My thoughts kept circling back to falling through the ice, and how easily I could go from happy hunting to freezing, in minutes. Actually, I've lived those minutes. Many local hunters and travelers have. I couldn't despise someone who has died in those minutes.

I remember walking from my camp to Ambler during breakup, hypothermic, jumping ice pans coming down creeks, for rafts, barely grasping willows to cling to cutbanks. Or at freezeup, kayaking across the Kobuk full of moving ice -- to get a wounded Canada goose -- and getting swept part way under the ice, certain I was gone but somehow clinging to a wedge of ice.

No one would have known. I don't leave detailed diaries saying: "Energetic, bored, lonely, restless today, crossing big river on retarded errand -- back in two hours." No one would have found me. I can only hope folks wouldn't have written unsigned commentary about how I deserved it.

That stuff was in my mind about the time state troopers suspended the search, shortly after Thanksgiving. I looked forward to getting on with winter, getting back to feeling normal crossing ice again.

Right then our longtime friend, Gitte, called with concrete details: Where she and Thomas had got a moose, what kind of clothing he wore, yes he did carry matches, and yes he was very capable. A man named Tamarack, the missing man's friend and employer, called from the states. Equally out of the blue, on the morning jet, Gitte and two women -- Seibold's extended family -- arrived from Healy and from Wisconsin.

My wife, Stacey, offered them breakfast, invited them to stay as long as they needed -- these three women, kind people all, and generous and saddened and missing a loved one. In those minutes the news story that Don had forwarded came alive right at our kitchen table. I put down my coffee and everything I was doing, everything I intended to do. Their search became my search.

I can't pretend to know the country well, but I've traveled it. I don't know the local pilots well but have flown with them. I found phone numbers, grabbed maps, stuffed parkas and socks and binoculars and cameras in packs. The sun cleared the horizon as we headed east with Jim Kincaid in a Northwestern Aviation Cessna 207.

Peering down at the endless empty miles, all I could think was how would I make it 40 days, over freezeup, in the Brooks Range, with no gun and poor winter gear? My thoughts jumped to humor -- the warmest thing around would be a bear turd.

The second day we landed briefly in Ambler to pick up Alvin Williams. He knows the country and has always had better eyes than me. We continued up the Ambler valley in the short daylight.

The hours became surreal, hunched at the small windows in the sky, pawing at maps, pointing out valleys, peering down at rocks and ice and tracks and trees -- some of the most rugged and remote wilderness around -- and us intense and focused, our eyes determined to see a person, dead or alive.

We saw only one thing -- that circle drawn in a sandbar, previously discovered by searchers. I refused to accept that it was sign of exultation, or a symbol of some circle of life. I wouldn't do that out in the wild, with wet feet and bears around, so I stuck with the belief that this guy wouldn't either. But what could it mean?

Nights, in Kotzebue, we poured over maps and photos I'd taken, and ideas. That wolverine relentlessness of mine wouldn't give up. I believed he was dead, but I was starting to harbor faint spells of hope. Humans, I know, can be impossibly tough.

Towards\ morning I had a dream: I could see his legs -- one twisted and broken -- across big black rocks, with yellow-soled boots, orange snowpants, and nearby in the rocks a vertical steel pole with a perfect STOP sign. I looked at the red sign, wondering why is that here? I tried to examine his legs but awoke with a start.

I got up and made coffee. By the stove, I asked Gitte what Thomas wore on his feet. He had Steger mukluks, she said, and Sorel boots with light-colored bottoms, and two sleeping bags. One was orange.

The phone rang. It was Nick Jans. "I had strange dreams last night," he said. "Nothing clear. Just that circle in the sandbar, really sharp, then I woke up."

"I'll let you know what we find," I said. I didn't say anything about my dream; I was still thinking about it.

That day Thomas' childhood friend, Makwa, brought his belongings from the troopers. When I laid out the tattered pieces of the USGS map, a big piece was obviously missing -- the entire Ambler River valley and both passes north to the Noatak.

That evening the three women -- Leti, Makwa, and Gitte -- got on the jet, heading home. I couldn't stop studying Natmaktuak Pass and the other fork of the Ambler. I envisioned myself alone for two months at Gitte's cabin on the river. I would try to walk that loop. And I certainly could get myself lost, hurt, chased around by bears, or under ice.

Just before midnight, Greg Dudgeon, an old friend and the superintendent of Gates of the Arctic National Park returned my call. I told him the route I would have tried to follow on foot. By morning he arranged with local NPS officials, and Eric Sieh -- a Kotzebue pilot who knows that country as well as anyone -- had a small plane gassed and ready.

The weather was perfect, calm and clear. We skimmed the mountains, on a direct line to the Cutler, upper Amakomanak, Imelyak and Kavachurak. We saw the blood of wolf kills, countless caribou trails, wolverine sign. Eric has years of experience tracking from the sky, and spotted caribou, a wolf pack and tiny ptarmigan tracks. For hours he banked the plane in tight timbered valleys, flew low over the ice and level with vertical rock headwalls.

We saw nothing.

In the falling fading light we turned west. It was a lowering kind of feeling, coming down over the sea ice, coming off the crazy intensity of this search: Giving up. That mixed with the strangeness of staring down from the sky at so many square miles that it has taken me a lifetime to cover on the ground.

Last I heard, Dan Stevenson, the NPS ranger here was still flying. And I know Tamarack and Leti and Makwa and Gitte are still trying to keep the search going.

It's hard to give up. I'm not family, I'm not related. All I did was say "Hi" to this man once. I like his friends. And I figure the same thing could happen to me. I think he's under the ice, or fell down rocks, or a grizzly bear stuffed him somewhere, but I don't know.

 

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

 

 

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